24 January 2014
Patsey has a small part in the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) compared to so many of the others. But here’s one thing the Academy Award nominations got right: Lupita Nyong’o should win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
If you see a photo of Nyong’o at an awards ceremony, you’d think she was a supermodel: everything about how she carries herself and uses her eyes and face stands in sharp contrast to her acting as the enslaved Patsey.
Patsey picks twice as much cotton as any other slave in Mr. Epps’ field, and withstands his periodic rapes of her, too. (Let it also be said that, unsurprisingly, Michael Fassbender is a terror in this role.) Her face amasses scars inflicted by Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who seethes for the lack of power to change her husband. But if those actors let their acting show, Nyong’o is so good in burying herself in this role that she outshines everyone — and, to my eyes, could have stolen the film from the equally wonderful Ejiofor had it not been for her tinier part.
She starts out inscrutable. What can we make of the fact that Solomon can’t pick even two hundred pounds of cotton in a day, but Patsey regularly tops five hundred? What do we make of her face as Epps caresses it in front of everyone, showing how much he favors her — clearly above his own wife?
But my favorite scene of Nyong’o showing her acting chops is with Mrs. Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the Black mistress of the neighboring plantation, who invites Patsey over for tea. The older woman sees her own success in moving from slavery to the role of mistress as a lesson for the younger girl. Patsey is a quick study: just see how she watches every move Mrs. Shaw makes. That performance of emulation becomes all the more tragic as we feel through Patsey’s quick eyes that she will never, ever, become mistress.
Every year I cry and rent my garments when the Academy Award nominations come out, and this year was no different (Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor?! but no Oscar Isaac?!) — but at least they got this one right. Nyong’o is Patsey, in a way that builds throughout the final act of the film. She tears your heart not for cheap pathos but because her experience captures the complex horror of slavery. And in a year full of terrible roles for Black women, thank you for getting this one right. Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the best film ever made about slavery in large part due to the way it captures the role of women in slavery — as mistresses as well as slaves.
I’m looking forward to seeing what else Nyong’o can do. When you see the film, you will too.